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Not-Quite Cover Versions

Would the opening sequence in The Royal Tenenbaums have been as effective set to the Beatles original recording of “Hey Jude?”—as Wes Anderson first imagined it? I’d say no way: Mark Mothersbaugh’s instrumental version, prepared especially for the movie, though very much like the original, engineers a greater effect—there’s a more upbeat swing, though it’s hardly a complete departure from the Beatles’ version. And so could anything be more appropriate for introducing viewers to the alternate—yet fully formed—reality of the Tenenbaums and their surroundings than an alternate-world version of one of pop music’s most famous songs? The result is phenomenally transporting.

Which has got me thinking about how truly expressive those songs that are just a step away from their originals can be. They’re not quite cover versions—which are more artists’ reinterpretations of the original songs, the rare opportunity to scat “Eleanor Rigby,” say. No, what I’m talking about is simply playing a new version of the source music.

What I’m be talking about is a kind of Muzak, only not in its strictest, most saccharine sense.

» Hear Mark Mothersbaugh’s “Hey Jude” (this mp3 has been removed)

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The unstructured piano music of non-composer Erik Satie (1866-1925, which makes him classical D.I.Y., you see) is also featured in The Royal Tenenbaums. And though the piano recordings are gorgeous for sure, the melodically percussive nature of the songs lend themselves to being plucked on classical guitar, as discovered by guitarist Pierre Laniau, and later by Steve Hackett (formerly of Genesis) and his brother John.

» Hear Pierre Laniau at Popsheep

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One of the true appeals of Muzak is when you finally recognize the song that’s had you pinging around your brain while shopping for room deodorizers. Maybe it was the oboe that tipped you off, but yes, it’s definitely “Rikki Don’t Lose that Number.”

The contemporary equivalent of that twinge of discovery is offered in mash-ups, which we can hardly appreciate any more, given the glut of them as well as the sneaking suspicion that computers may make the work a lot easier than it sounds. It’s that wariness that makes a 1977 proto-mash-up like the Residents’ “Beyond the Valley of A Day in the Life” so honestly impressive.

» Hear the Residents at Marathonpacks

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I have long held that electro-guitar duo Ratatat are not merely hipsters with guitars but devout worshippers at the altar of guitarist and frequent Brian Eno collaborator Robert Fripp (who founded the League of Crafty Guitarists to build that same altar). And though the thick harmonics on “Tacobel Canon” (ha) are unmistakably Frippish, the beatz are all theirs.

» Hear Ratatat at The Rich Girls Are Weeping

Also Ratatat’s own is that pun on Pachebel’s Canon, which brings further evidence of the influence back to Eno, in light of his delicate rearrangement of the piece on 1975’s Discreet Music.

» Hear Brian Eno’s “Brutal Ardour” (this mp3 has been removed)


Andrew Womack is a founding editor of The Morning News. He is always working on the next installment of the Albums of the Year series at TMN. More by Andrew Womack

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